It’s a term we’ve all heard and one that instantly paints a picture in your head. A nasty, wicked woman who has entered the lives of a man and his children, causing conflict and turmoil along the way. This term is always used to describe a stepmom and I have not yet heard of an equivalent title for stepdads. Why is that? Why does the mere mention of ‘stepmom’ create images full of negative stereotypes while ‘stepdad’ doesn’t seem to have the same impact?
The book, Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin, PhD, explores these questions in depth. While researching her book, Ms. Martin commonly found that stepchildren often reported a positive relationship with their stepdad but that the relationship with their stepmom was strained. This was particularly true for stepmoms and stepdaughters, which seem to have the highest likelihood for distress and negative interactions.
In her book, Ms. Martin goes over six reasons why it is easier to love a stepdad than it is to love a stepmom.
Stepmoms are harder to accept.
Research shows that stepmoms have a harder task of being accepted by their stepchildren. This can be due to the role that woman often inherently play in many homes. The stepmom may begin taking the lead to manage schedules, chores, meals, etc., and can then be seen as the ‘reason’ for changes and difficulties in the child’s life. This scenario can result in a situation where there are feelings of rejection. These feelings can then create an even more difficult task of building a positive relationship between stepmom and stepchild.
Stepmoms face a higher level of resentment.
According to research, including studies by Mavis Hetherington and Constance Ahrons, divorced women are more likely to carry anger and resentment for a longer time period than their male counterpart. It was found that divorced women often hang onto fantasies of either reconciliation or of a specific co-parenting life.
Ms. Hetherinton’s 30-year study of post-divorce life found that stepmoms in particular were singled out by stepchildren and treated poorly. This most often occurred when the children were able to pick up on their mom’s anger, hostility or jealousy. These stepchildren became a sort of proxy for their mom in their dad’s home and acted accordingly. This was done in a way for the children to show support for their mom or in hopes of helping their mom to feel better about the situation.
Stepmoms try too hard.
Woman are more likely than men to step into a situation with children and to work immediately on creating a loving relationship. These actions can be viewed as maternal to children and can be viewed as threatening, especially to those who are in a loyalty bind situation with their mom. A stepdad, on the other hand will often keep at a distant without contributing to the parenting habits of his new wife. The initial behaviors of stepmoms and stepdads often fall in line to the roles they are familiar with playing. For example, a stepmom with children of her own may automatically slide into a maternal role in the home while a stepdad may be more comfortable with a support role.
Moms often model behavior.
Children, particularly girls, are more likely to model their actions after their mother. If the mom is holding onto anger or negative feelings, these can be transferred over to the children and will support a negative stepmom/stepchild relationship. Stepdads are less likely to be faced with a dad who is holding onto strong resentments or that has a specific agenda of how the children should be raised in the other home.
Dads feel pressured to keep the peace.
Studies have shown that many fathers with shared custody hold a fear of being alienated from their children. This can in turn cause them to retreat from situations of conflict with their children’s mother and can create a situation which allows the mother to have a greater say in their home, parenting styles, boundaries or rules. This can allow the mom to have a large impression on the home and can result in inconsistent or unhealthy boundaries.
Another situation is that many dads are worried about disciplining their children when they only see them a few nights a month. A commonly heard response is – “I only see them every other weekend so I don’t want to spend that time arguing or disciplining them”. This can cause the dad to have a house with fewer rules or punishments because they don’t want their children to reject visitations.
These scenarios can result in a large level of conflict when a stepmom enters the picture. When she attempts to assert her boundaries or to change the dynamic of the home, the children can become resentful and she may not have the support of the dad. This can create tension in the marriage which the stepmom could contribute to the children, causing greater rejection and distance.
Mom is the primary caretaker.
Woman are more likely to be awarded primary custody with the father receiving visitation. This dynamic causes “spurts” in visits with the kids being around a few weekends a month and for holidays. This creates a situation in which the stepmom and stepchildren feel like they are merely visitors instead of active participants in the home and family. The less time spent makes it more difficult to build solid, loving relationships. Stepdads are usually with the children on a constant basis since the children will live there most of the time. This allows them to build a relationship slowly with constant interactions to strengthen the bond.
The term stepmonster implies that if the woman were to be warmer, gentler, more or this, or less of that – that she would have a good relationship with her stepchildren. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t that simple. These topics are just a few of the hurdles that many stepmoms face when entering the marriage. While stepdads typically have a lower level of conflict, they too have forces outside of their control when it comes to building a solid relationship with their stepchildren. The reason why it’s important to keep these outside forces in mind is to understand that step-relationships take time to grow. After the initial honeymoon period ends, many stepparents find themselves in a state of shock and doubting their every move. It can be reassuring to know that you’re feelings are shared by many.
Wednesday Martin, PhD, Why It’s Easier to Love a Stepfather Than a Stepmother, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stepmonster/201106/why-its-easier-love-stepfather-stepmother